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Behind the Curtain: In Pursuit of the Perfect Guitar Pick
For his latest Behind the Curtain entry, rock journalist Steve Rosen expands upon the draw of one of of his lifelong hobbies as a music fan: Collecting guitar picks.
The clock is striking 1:16 a.m. I have three fans going because it is hotter than Hades out and it feels like Mother Earth wants to cannibalize itself but after one distasteful bite she spits us out in a glistening glob of fire-ravaged, virus savaged, earthquake-damaged misery.
We’re talking one humongous lunar-sized loogie. I’m going to continue with the hellish references here because it seems to be working: Wildfires have ravaged California; the sky is the color of dirty dishwater and the air smells like the butt-end of a cigarette. On top of that, just about two hours ago I was rocked from my bed by what I now know was a 4.5 earthquake centered in San Gabriel, which is about 18 miles from me.
For anyone who has never experienced the particular horror of an earthquake, consider yourself blessed. It feels like gravity has decided to take time off. Gone on strike. Your equilibrium gets fucked up because the floor beneath you isn’t supposed to be doing what it’s doing, which is moving back and forth like some writhing animal. Terrifying as well, yeah, hell.
But with all this going on, I can still take comfort and find solace in one thing: my guitar picks.
There’s a sentiment about which you’re probably thinking, “What the fuck is he talking about?” I’ll tell you. I am surrounded by 40,000 guitar picks and looking at them now, I feel calmer. I am heartened by the sight of them. They are a remedy and a protection against all the evils and bad stuff, which seem to be everywhere in the world these days.
I don’t know why they make me feel this way, but they do and always have. These tiny little wafers of celluloid do nothing more than sit there — but that’s enough. They sit on shelves in various-sized Akro-Mills Plastic Parts Storage Hardware and Craft Cabinets, the plastic storage units with the little see-through drawers that pull out. Most people use them to hold screws, nuts, bolts, cheap jewelry, tchotchkes and the like, but I use them for my picks.
Every pick sits (OK, maybe they do sit) in its own little drawer. They are arranged alphabetically by band — from Accept to ZZ Top — and the arrangement is as much functional as it is aesthetic. Function and form. You can see the picks thru the front of the drawers and know you’re looking at a little clear plastic receptacle of Brian May, Tom Petty or Alice Cooper picks because you can see the graphics on them through the little plastic partition.
They are simple and perfect, which at this moment is everything the world is not. I’m not the first collector to feel this way. Back in a May 1999 issue of Vintage Guitar, Chris Hewitt said, “There is beauty in their simplicity.” Right on, Chris.
A pick has one function: to strike (uh oh, there’s that word again) a guitar string. A one-pick pony. Which begs another question: “Why do people collect picks?”
I don’t have a fucking clue, really, but I can guess. A pick is a time machine, a dream machine, a totem, talisman, trophy. It is the Holy fucking Grail, the thrill of the chase, the next big kill. It is the sighting/capture of the rare Siberian snow leopard, the yeti, the great white buffalo. It is a thing touched by the hands of gods. There is magic, mojo and mystery in them. They hold a piece of the person who held them and there is deep meaning in that.
I am trying to remember the first pick I ever scrambled after. I can’t be positive but I’m pretty sure it was a Jimi Hendrix pick. Talk about magic. It was April 26th, 1969 and I was 16 years old and sitting in the cheap seats at the mammoth Inglewood Forum waiting for Jimi to take the stage. Back in the day, security was lax at concerts and if there were empty seats you could snake your way forward into them. My friend Skip and I managed to do that as we both watched in awe as Jimi performed his left-handed legerdemain.
All too quickly, the set was over, the lights came up and everybody began exiting. Skip and I headed for the doors but something drew me back to the stage. I don’t know what it was. I started making my way to the front of the raised stage and at any minute I expected a guard or Forum usher to tap me on the shoulder and point the way out but nothing happened. I kept walking and before I knew it I was standing in front of the stage gazing up at Jimi’s Marshall stacks and watching his roadie clear out the gear. The sight of that mesmerized me. That would have been enough, but suddenly a small voice squeaked from the back of my throat. “Hey, do you think I could please have a guitar pick?” I could see them sitting on top of the amp or maybe I’m just imagining that now. Either way, I was compelled to ask.
The roadie ignored me. I asked again. “Could I please get a guitar pick?” Respectful, polite. He looked at me like roadkill. My anxiety over getting a pick was growing and each time I voiced my request, it came out a bit more forcefully and plea turned into request and came out as demand. “I just want a pick. Just give me a pick,” I said. Nothing. “I want one pick. I know you have a lot of them.” Still nothing so I ratcheted up my demand. “Give me a fucking pick.” The roadie continued to wind cables. “Fucker, give me a fucking pick.” He looked at me and I was thinking he was going to jump off the stage and kick my 16-year-old ass. I can’t recall if he took a pick from his pocket or one from the top of the amp and staring right at me with a poisonous gaze as if he wanted to (yes) strike me dead, he flung one out onto the Forum floor.
I watched it sail over my head, this wingless, eyeless synthetic bird, and as I turned to see where it landed, I lost sight of it. The floor of the Forum was like a battlefield, strewn with empty plastic beer cups, candy wrappers, half-digested foodstuffs and other assorted garbage. I was apoplectic. Apickoplectic. I scurried over to the area where I thought it landed and began digging through the detritus. My hands were covered in spilled goo, which I didn’t even want to think about. Pushing aside mounds of crap and finally getting down on all fours, I scrambled amongst the seats that were just now being taken down [the Forum was where the Lakers played so the seats had to be removed for the next game]. Peering all around me, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I thought it was a half-digested piece of hotdog or a chip or something but when I reached down to retrieve it, my heart soared like the highest-flying eagle: It was my Jimi Hendrix pick. A Manny’s [Manny’s was a famous music store in New York where Hendrix and a lot of other ‘60s musicians bought guitars and various gear] Heavy pick.
Rising from the primordial muck like a newborn creature, I wiped the goo from the pick and held it there in the palm of my hand and grinned like the village idiot. A proud papa. Proud pick papa. I ran to the exit for fear of the roadie jumping off the stage and stealing it back — I knew that wouldn’t happen but maybe? — and with Skip close behind me, we bolted for the doors.
Even now writing this over 50 years later, I am shot through with the adrenalin of that life-changing moment. I know this sounds epiphanous or religious or like I’d uncovered the mystery of the world but for me, I was never the same after that.
That was my first one. Maiden voyage. I was a pick virgin no longer. Whatever that feeling was upon first touching the Hendrix pick, I knew I wanted to experience it again … and again.
I did. About a year later on November 20th, 1970, I scored Eric Clapton’s pick at a Derek & the Dominos show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It grew from there. I was addicted, a plastic junkie and it became a ritual. When I started interviewing guitarists, I asked them for picks: Alvin Lee, John McLaughlin, Greg Lake, Billy Gibbons, B.B. King, Tony Iommi, John Cippolina [a rare set of fingerpicks] and many others.
In fact, so obsessed was I with the pursuit of the pick that in 1975 I pitched an idea to Guitar Player. I had been writing for them for about two years at that point when I told editor Jim Crockett how I had amassed a pretty impressive collection of picks from the interviews I’d done in addition to what I’d scored at concerts and how cool it would be to do a little story on them . I saw this as a pictorial with photos of the picks and a short paragraph describing how/where I obtained them. Jim was cold on the idea and in fact dismissed it almost before I finished telling him about it. I let it go. A few days later, I brought it up again and I’m not sure what I said but he reluctantly agreed. Unspoken was his warning, “Don’t fuck this up, Rosen.”
I pulled 24 picks from my collection and found photographer Joanna Cucinotta [shameless plug: “Joanna, if you’re reading this, give me a shout!”]. We got together and she laid the picks out one by one on this expensive-looking piece of fabric. I wrote a brief paragraph on each pick and handed in the text and photos to Crockett.
He still didn’t see much there. I thought it was a fun story and something different but what the fuck did I know?
It turns out that not only did that one-page article in the July 1975 issue titled The Picks of Rock and Roll truly resonate with readers — they really dug it — but all these decades later that story is recognized as the very first article ever written about the pursuit of pick collecting. I’m not saying it was the first story ever written about guitar picks because there were certainly earlier narratives written on the history of picks or the different varieties of picks and stuff like that but nobody had ever chronicled what I did. That story would become a cornerstone for the ever burgeoning population of guitar pick collectors.
Twenty years later in 1995, Will Hoover wrote a book called Picks! The Colorful Saga of Vintage Celluloid Guitar Plectrums and namechecked me. He wrote: “In July of 1975 Guitar Player magazine piqued pick curiosity with an article by Steve Rosen that featured picks touched by the fingers of such immortals as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and John McLaughlin.” I was blown away when I eventually saw that. Then in 2008, Brian Bouchard penned Guitar Picks of Rock & Roll, which was the first substantial book on the world of pick collecting. On page 161, Brian said, “GP also put out an article, by Steve Rosen, titled The Picks of Rock And Roll in July 1975 which featured 24 great old picks, including a Jimi Hendrix pick. This article is a classic and includes a photo of each pick it describes.”
In fact, years later I’d start communicating with Brian and eventually meet him at a gathering of pick enthusiasts a few months back. Bouchard is a stalwart of the collecting community, a dude of high integrity and a bent for chronicling and documenting. In December, he is releasing a follow-up to his first book, an expansive, picture-laden tome with photos and histories of some of the rarest picks on the planet.
In the intro to his first book, he wrote:
“The world of guitar pick collecting is a hobby of great enjoyment for many people. A guitar pick collection can be a magic carpet ride that takes you away from the pressures and worries of everyday life and transports you to a relaxing world where you can relive the pleasures and excitement of past days. A single guitar pick can be the symbol of a special time in your life when you didn’t have a worry, just music and good times. A pick can be a cool souvenir from a concert you once attended or a gift from a great guitarist that you idolize. Guitar picks are a part of musical history – personalized artifacts of band members and the tours they played on. Guitar picks tend to be more affordable than other personalized band items and can be very easily displayed or stored. This simple beauty, coupled with the excitement of holding something that once belonged to a celebrity musician, makes guitar picks great conversational pieces. Not to mention that collecting picks is a whole lot cooler than collecting stamps, shells or just about anything else!”
Fucking right on, Brian. Maybe now is as good a time as any to dispel some myths and administer a short quiz.
First, to dispel some myths:
- Only guitarists collect picks. In fact, most collectors I know don’t play guitar. I doubt whether they know what a guitar is since they’re too busy trying to score that next pick. On top of that, they’ve probably spent so much fucking money chasing down picks on their want list that about the only guitar they could afford would be one in the shape of a kitchen magnet.
- Pick collecting is a nice hobby. Really fucking wrong. I have never spoken to a collector and heard them say to me, “Hello, Steve. I’m sitting here on my veranda, sipping Darjeeling and pleasantly perusing my collection of Stones picks.” What I have heard them say is, “Fuck, Steve. I’ve just mainlined my fifth cup of coffee in the past hour. If I don’t score that last ’87 Stones pick I need, I am going to scream.”
- Collectors can stop whenever they want. Totally, ridiculously, insanely wrong. The true collector never has enough picks. There is always one more. The dedicated pick hoarder must have the entire set of Petty picks or all the Metallica City picks. He/she can’t stop at just one.
Which sort of leads me into the second part of this section: How do you know if you’re a would-be pick person?
Here is a quiz to test yourself:
You are at a concert and the guitarist flings out a guitar pick. Do you … ?
- Remain in your seat and simply watch it sail out into the crowd.
- Make a half-hearted attempt to try and catch it.
- Rise slightly from your seat and extend one arm in an attempt to nab it.
- Stand up and raise both arms in a serious attempt at grabbing it.
- Jump out of your seat as if you’ve been zapped. Push, shove, bully, scratch and kick anyone around you. Then when the area around you is secure, you stand up on your seat and as you watch the pick fly towards you, make a leap out and over the seething mass of people in front of you and in a perfect gold medal swan dive, catch the pick in your sweaty and desperate palm. You fucking bolt for the nearest exit because all those people you pushed out of the way are now regaining consciousness and looking around for the dickhead who manhandled them. Though this doesn’t really cause you much concern because there is so much adrenaline now coursing through your buzzing veins that you could probably tear limbs from bodies should anyone try and confront you.
If you answered yes to number one, rest easy. You don’t have the collector’s gene. You’re free to pursue a normal, boring life.
If you answered yes to number two or three, there are indications that collecting might be in your blood.
A yes to question four means you’re already collecting but not yet infected with the full-blown symptoms.
And if you answered in the affirmative to question five, well, dude, do I really have to spell it out? You’re probably selling blood to fund your next score. You commune daily with your collection, spreading them out on the floor, rolling over them, counting and recounting them, touching them, fondling them, letting them spill from your fingers as if they were the rarest gems in the universe. You live each day in heightened anticipation of what you might uncover next and the feeling is both so all-consuming and utterly satisfying that you wonder how you ever faced the world without them.
Jon Elliott knows what I’m talking about. Elliott is one of the most elite collectors in the world and would have immediately answered in the affirmative to Question 5 above. His personal stash is so remarkable that anybody looking at it is reduced to a babbling, drooling half-wit. Some go blind as if they’ve just stared at the sun. I should know because I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see his collection at that recent get-together of collectors I mentioned earlier. After gazing down at them, I walked away unable to form complete sentences.
Here, Jon shares his version of my own life-altering, crawling-around-in-the-viscous-concert-muck experience when I extracted the Jimi Hendrix pick from the Inglewood Forum floor.
“I saw Pearl Jam at the Boston Garden in September 2004 and Eddie Vedder’s then girlfriend and now wife walked be me in my 12th row aisle seat. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind grabbing me an EV pick next time she went backstage. She said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. Eddie throws out a couple of picks during the show,’ insinuating that being 12 rows away and on the outside aisle I would easily get a pick. I laughed to myself and figured I would try to ask somebody else when they walked out from backstage but totally struck out. Ironically, about halfway through the show, EV launched a pick and I caught it in the light and it went straight out for about eight rows and then curved perfectly out towards me. It hit off my chest and I bent down to pick it up. I started completely cracking up and realized sometimes pick karma definitely goes your way.”
Fucking right on, Jon.
Brandon Molale is another diehard, hardcore, and relentless pursuer of picks. I had first met Brandon some years back but ran into him recently at the pick collectors convention where I also had the honor of talking shop with Jon Elliott and was introduced to Brian Bouchard for the first time. Besides possessing one of the rarest and fucking coolest collections in the known universe, Molale has taken on the role of P.I.: Pick investigator. Brandon has an acute eye for fake picks. I mean the guy is a pick whisperer, the Poirot of picks, the Sherlock Holmes of celluloid. He can tell you by the way the graphics have been applied or the weight of the pick itself or by the most minute and microscopic abnormality whether a pick is real or not. He regularly calls out scammers who create these fakes and rightly so.
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Those assholes who create fake picks are immoral and vulgar cretins and Brandon makes sure everybody knows about them.
He’s even created Guitar Pick Fakes and Scammers, a Facebook group dedicated solely to busting these bootleggers:
Brandon also has his own site where he regales collectors everywhere with photos and comments on his own kickass collection:
Here, Molale tells us why he’s so freaking hung up on the little plastic things:
“I first started collecting guitar picks in 1985. I was fortunate to work for an AOR [Album Oriented Rock] radio station in the late 80s and I had backstage access to most of the concerts either interviewing the bands, meeting the guitar techs or just hanging out in that scene. I was able to amass a lot of guitar picks firsthand back then. As the years went on, those picks were considered vintage since everything from the ‘90s and earlier were hard to find and in high-demand among collectors worldwide.
“Having such firsthand knowledge and spending decades involved in this hobby you tend to see it all and hear all the stories. Most collectors share and collaborate all of our knowledge together. As the love of this hobby has grown over the years, we try to document as much as we can. We’re not getting any younger and a lot of the original collectors and players aren’t around anymore.
“I run the private group Vintage Guitar Picks on Facebook as a way to unite all collectors of vintage guitar picks worldwide. There’s so much information on that page and it is the go-to page for any vintage guitar pick collector.
“Why do I collect vintage guitar picks? As a big fan of all types of music, it’s really cool knowing that this is something that was made specifically for that artist. Some of the picks that were handed directly to me from the artist’s hand to mine left a lasting impression on me. Having an artist toss a pick to you at the show and catching it is a moment you never forget. You never forget it and it’s almost as if you’re bonding with that artist because they gave you a piece of themselves even if it’s only a simple piece of plastic with their name, signature or band logo printed on it.
“You’re not a serious vintage guitar pick collector if you are not familiar with The Picks of Rock And Roll story that Steven Rosen wrote for Guitar Player magazine in 1975. This was the first published story documenting the actual guitar picks that our favorite musicians used on stage. This story is iconic in the world of vintage guitar pick collecting. If you own any of those picks you are a dedicated collector and I own a few of them.”
So, I guess I did have a small sense of what my 1975 Guitar Player story might engender and I’m happy as hell it did. There are now thousands of collectors around the world all scrambling and scurrying for the Next Big Score. And though I may have variously characterized them here as rabid plastic junkies, heartless bloodsucking demons and knock-down, drag-out killers with only one thing on their minds, the reality of who they are is a world away. Jon Elliott, Brian Bouchard and Brandon Molale — three of the most respected dudes in the collecting community — are some of the nicest, brightest and caring people I’ve ever met.
As a seller of picks on Ebay, I’ve also communicated with dozens and dozens of pickers who are all uniformly decent, easygoing and friendly individuals. Mind you, I’ve run into monsters out there, selfish, stupid and self-aggrandizing mutants who are disrespectful of everyone and everything and represent a giant, festering boil on the collecting village. But I guess you’d encounter those types whether you were collecting art, antiques or automobiles. There’s no avoiding assholes.
So, it is now three nights later since I began this narrative and my clock is now striking (yes, I relent) 1:51 in the morning. My picks sit comfortably in their little plastic homes, waiting to be selected and mailed out to anxious collectors around the world. It is a simple thought without clutter or dissent.
Politics, demonstrations, viruses, dirty air and earthquakes play no part in the equation. There is beauty in the simplicity of it and that brings me joy.
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